Mathematics curriculum adds up to failure

October 27, 2001|By Gregory Kane

STILL DEPRESSED that 82 percent of Baltimore students who recently took an embarrassingly easy functional math test flunked it, I pondered hurling myself in front of a speeding baby stroller.

But my instinct for self-preservation kicked in. OK, it's more like the sniveling coward in me surged forth, but you get the point. Instead of ending it all, I, a proud graduate of City College's still-loony-after-all-these-years Class of 1969, headed to - Poly.

Hold the tar and feathers, stalwart alumni of City! I still enjoy seeing City's football team give Poly's a good thumping every November. But when I'm feeling depressed about poor student performances in math, I seek solace from Poly alumni and staff members.

That's how I ended up in the school's conference room, chatting - commiserating is more the word - with Poly Principal Ian Cohen and Jackie Williams, who was recently appointed head of the school's math department.

Williams graduated from Poly in 1981, some six years after the former all-boys school admitted its first female students. She had gone there from what was then Robert Poole Jr. High School. Before Poly, Williams taught math at Herring Run Middle School - now Thurgood Marshall Middle School - for 10 years.

Cohen had taught at three middle schools: Francis Scott Key, Winston and Roland Park, where he also headed the math department.

Now, both are at Poly, the city's math and science high school, which has proudly turned out engineers and scientists for more than 100 years.

Doctors, lawyers and teachers also are among its graduates, as well as some runt of a writer who went by the name of H.L. Mencken.

Such history some local government bigwigs don't know. But not Tony Ambridge, former city councilman and city real estate officer. Ambridge is a 1969 Poly grad (and a darned good wrestler, not that that has anything to do with the current discussion). We met in City Hall one day.

"About this science and technology high school [that local government honchos] are proposing for the Inner Harbor," Ambridge asked me, "haven't these people ever heard of Poly?"

"Tony," I answered, "I don't think they have."

So for those of you - especially the ones at City Hall - who didn't know, now you do. The average math SAT score at Poly is, Cohen said, 539.

"That's the highest in the city and well above the national and state mean," he added.

All of Poly's students have passed the functional math test before their senior year. The handful of middle school pupils who enter Poly and haven't passed it soon do. The students who arrive at Poly from private and parochial schools - there are many because, yes, the education at Poly (and City and Western) is that good - are given the test because they've never taken it.

"It's a fairly simple test," Williams said of the functional. "I've administered [it] to sixth-graders, and they've passed it."

"The test is first administered in the sixth grade on a trial basis," Cohen added. "They should pass it in the seventh grade."

This is the test where students are asked, for example, to write 80 percent as a decimal. It gets a little bit harder than that, but not by much. The rest is a matter of adding, multiplying, dividing and subtracting fractions, decimals and percentages, some questions about measurements and a few word problems.

So what's up with today's students that they can't pass this test? The question stumped Cohen and Williams momentarily. All three of us remembered how we knew the stuff on the test cold. We reminisced about how we had to memorize decimal and percentage equivalents of all the proper fractions with a denominator of eight. We still know them.

"The failure rate is not surprising to me," Williams said after reflecting. "Something different from what's been done in the past needs to be done."

We all know what that "something different" is. It's something actually very old. We need to return to the teaching method that taught generations of students to perform basic math and chuck the junk the "experts" and "reformers" told us was better.

"There's a lot of folks who want a back-to-basics approach," Cohen said.

"That's where we need to go," Williams agreed. Cohen said that for years there has been "a real drift away from rote memory" learning. He has a hunch that the emphasis on raising reading scores has come at the expense of basic math skills.

But Cohen is optimistic.

"I think the situation is going to improve because a lot more attention is being paid to it," Cohen said.

Let's hope the boneheads who had us deep-six a system that worked for one that doesn't are not among those paying attention.

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